The Wall That Heals
The approach of Memorial Day prompts my thought that there should be a memorial for those who died, and many still in harm’s way, in Afghanistan and Iraq. To appreciate those thoughts you would have to understand the power of what we call The Wall, the 58,195 names etched in the black marble panels of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The power of The Wall has much to do with what beats in the hearts of many Americans affected by that war, and a little to do with the memorial’s design.
Part of the calculus in deciding to commit U.S. troops to hostilities should be the price they will individually pay, both the ones who will die and the ones who live. The after-effects of traumatic combat experience vary widely. I am not an expert, just a layman with anecdotal experience and believe these things to be true after speaking with a lot of other vets.
The sudden terror of a near-death incident, the violent death of a friend, the horror of bodies torn apart, whether enemy, friendly or innocents, have always been things warriors have to push down to a deeply hidden part of their gut so they can continue to function. Like cops who deal with life’s underbelly every day, they use morbid humor for relief, but however deep it is buried, it never goes away.
Many vets don’t realize until years later that the bonds forged by shared hardship in a war put love in their heart for those other guys, even the ones that rubbed them the wrong way.
When the shooting starts, they aren’t fighting for our flag, they are fighting for each other, and when a buddy’s guts are scattered on the ground and he screams for his mom while he dies, that haunting memory lives vividly forever. These pressures were far harder on grunts than on pilots like me.
You know more about this than you think if you have ever been part of a harrowing event, like a very bad auto wreck, or if you have had the shock of the unexpected death of someone you loved completely. When does the pain go away? Never. It remains just below the surface and, for the rest of your life, when that surface is scratched, there it is, staring you in the face.
Another stress is the isolation felt by a lot of troops home from a war. After endless dreams of returning home, they often have a hard time re-connecting with old friends because the vet has changed. While he now has a sharp focus that quickly separates the important from the trivial, he often finds the lives of his old friends turn on inconsequential things like shopping and the latest fad on TV.
Part of it comes from a disconnect with the public, which seems largely apathetic to the war in which the vets bet their lives — how can everyone carry on and play as if there was no war while our troops are still fighting?
Part of it comes from a surprising longing to be back with their comrades, the ones who understand them best now and can convey things with a gesture or a word that outsiders will never understand.
Isolation was aggravated for many Vietnam vets by the rejection they felt from the American public. There appears to be a similar issue for today’s combat vets, not from rejection but the public’s indifference to a war since there is no draft and uninvolved families have very little skin in the game.
These are some of the pressures carried by vets long after their fighting is done. You can imagine the stress borne by families who received notice the son they loved more than their own life was dead. As long as they live, it never goes away.
The power of The Wall is that it is a place that honors what these vets and families sacrificed. It is their place. For vets, it is a connection with the comrades they already know and many they don’t, instant friends when they meet. The Wall scratches the surface of things buried deep inside.
When I visited The Wall I discovered the genius in its simple design. To find the names I searched for, I had to find the right panel, passing by so many names; then I had to search on the panel because the names are in order of dates of death, but it appears random because the dates are not marked.
Being forced to look through so freaking many names makes you slowly realize that every one is a story, just like the name you are searching for, every one was a son, a brother, an uncle, a husband, a father, a friend. The memorial’s message gets lost in numbers but it comes back in the search.
Something special happens at The Wall every day. Visitors leave all sorts of mementos. Jamie O’Hara wrote a fine song titled “50,000 Names,” about the gifts visitors leave, trinkets collected daily and kept by the National Park Service. Part of the lyrics are:
“They come from all across this land,
“in pick-up trucks and minivans,
“searching for a boy from long ago.
“They search the wall to find his name,
“teardrops fall like pouring rain,
“and silently they leave a gift and go.”
The Wall seems to scratch the surface, to relieve some pressure of deeply buried trauma. Some call it cathartic. Some vets don’t want to go to The Wall, reluctant to lose their composure in public. Others say it would be good for them, but I don’t know what is good for them; I just know it is good for me.
I also know that vets and families of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars should have a place that honors them, that belongs to them, that connects them. After sending those troops away from their family three, four or five times to do our dirty work in a war zone while we go to the mall, at the very least we owe them a memorial. We should not wait 20 years to build it.
Meanwhile, if you want to witness the power of The Wall right here at home, mark your calendar. “The Wall That Heals,” a half-scale replica, will be at the Coweta County Fairgrounds in Newnan on Pine Road Oct. 20-23. For details or to volunteer – or contribute – email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This traveling memorial will be free to the public, open around the clock, available in the wee hours for those who prefer to make such a visit in private. I might be one of them.